OK, so you don't know anything about Mike Harrington, trainer of Creative Cause, right? Sure you do. You've seen him a million times in one Western movie or another. You know the scene in almost every movie where the stranger rides into town and approaches an old timer leaning back on his chair, whittlin' a piece of hickory, and asks if there's a place a fella get a bath and a shave. The old cowboy, a single strand of straw dangling from his mouth, gives him a wry smile and answers all questions with one of two replies: "yep" and "nope."
Well, to be honest, Harrington is more amicable than that and does supply more information when asked a question...but not a lot more. Unfortunately for Harrington, he is about to become immersed in the media frenzy of the Kentucky Derby whether he likes it or not. After all these years he's got himself a Derby contender and there's nothing he can do about it. Actually, it's his own fault. He wouldn't have to subject himself to all this attention and scrutiny if he hadn't had so much faith in pinhooker Becky Thomas that he would buy a horse from her without even laying eyes on him.
Creative Cause arrives at Churchill Downs April 28
Harrington has quietly applied his trade in Southern California since 1992, moving there from the Northwest. He is best known for training Swiss Yodeler, winner of the grade I Hollywood Futurity and four other stakes in 1996. Harrington made a living off Swiss Yodeler and his progeny. At one point, 21 of the 30 horses in his barn were by Swiss Yodeler.
The son of Eastern Echo, who became a successful stallion, siring Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Thor's Echo, has been the crowning achievement for Harrington and owner Heinz Steinmann.
For years, Harrington would attend the Barretts 2-year-olds in training sale and would find himself sauntering over to Thomas' barn to look at her horses. Even though Harrington never bought anything from Thomas, as her stock was mostly beyond his price range, she became impressed with the way he managed to point out her best prospects year after year. It was obvious they had the same taste.
Then last year, the 80-year-old Steinmann, who has 11 children and 31 grandchildren, decided to take one last crack at finding a classic type of horse and sent Harrington to the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder with a fair amount of ammunition. Of course, Harrington headed right over to Thomas' consignment, but this time he came prepared to buy.
"Mike and I have known each other for a very long time, and I've always had a lot of respect for him, because I knew the horses he was picking out were the ones that I liked," Thomas said. "Last year he came to the 2-year-old sale in Miami with an order to buy three horses. He came by the barn and I asked him if he was lost, and he said, ‘No, my guy wants to do this one more time and is looking for three two-turn colts.' I told him I didn't have anything."
Thomas' best horse was a Giant's Causeway colt who she had to scratch from the sale because of a "little bit of a suspensory" that was nagging him and re-entered him in the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale, along with a couple of other horses, including Ever So Lucky.
"I wanted to give him a couple of weeks off without breezing him," Thomas said. "When I told Mike I didn't have anything, he said, ‘That's a shame.' He wound up buying two other horses and he came back to me at the end of the sale and asked me, ‘What do you have at home?' I told him I had three horses back at the farm. One of them was a Giant's Causeway, out of a mare by Siberian Summer (winner of the Strub Stakes). He asked me, ‘What about that horse?' I told him I really liked him, and that I had just put him back in training. He said, ‘And you really like him?' I said, ‘Yes.'
"He asked me what price I was thinking and I told him. He said, ‘I'll take him and my guy will send you a check. Put him on a van and send him to me.' "
Although Thomas was flattered by Harrington's faith in her judgment, she wasn't comfortable selling the colt at that point sight unseen.
"No, I can't do that, Mike," she told him. "I've been down here a week and I want to see him train and make sure everything is all right. I'll tell you what; let me go home and train him for a couple of weeks and if everything is good, I'll put him on one of the planes with the horses going to Barretts."
Thomas added, "I have a lot of respect for Mike, as he does me. Mike never saw the colt and never even had an agent look at him. I told him the colt was doing well, and I took a picture of him with my phone and sent it to Mike and said, ‘Here's your horse, so you'll know him when he gets off the van.'
"I knew he would like him and he did. As he trained him, he continued to like him more and more. The only thing he said was that I had taught him to rear up on hind legs. He's a very feel-good horse and although he was very professional on the track, on the way there it was kind of a rodeo sometimes. But he's matured and has gotten a lot better about that. I call horses like him happy horses. They want to train every day and they're always happy to go to the track and do everything right. They just wait for instructions and they're ready to move on when you ask them; just an auto pilot horse.
"He was smart and professional from the get-go and always very competitive. I knew he'd be a two-turn horse, but he had enough speed and will and talent that I knew he could win early."
Thomas admits it was a lot of pressure selling a horse sight unseen for decent bucks, especially to a friend who trusted her judgment with someone else's money.
"Here's a guy who believes in you that you never sold a horse to and he's going to trust you to send him a horse he's never seen," Thomas said. "And he was essentially a lot of money. He was no $30,000 horse. It was a big leap of faith and a lot of pressure for me. Obviously I couldn't guarantee he was going to become a grade I stakes winner and be in the Kentucky Derby, but I believed him to be a really nice horse."
Harrington has kept Thomas updated on the colt's progress throughout his career, and after Creative Cause won the Norfolk Stakes he bought her tickets to the Breeders' Cup to see him run in the Juvenile.
"He's very appreciative and I'm very appreciative," Thomas said. "It's been a great relationship. Mike is really quiet and unassuming and doesn't like all the fanfare that comes with it. He's a really good horseman who's never been in the limelight before. He did have Swiss Yodeler, but this is a big league horse with a big league pedigree. I couldn't be happier for Mike and for Mr. Steinmann. It's been a wild ride."